Oregon is a big state. The 9th biggest in the country. It has 36 counties, and some of them are quite large as well, particularly in eastern and southern Oregon. However, not many people live there, and so those regions have a disproportionately smaller impact on election results in the state.
For example, the 10 counties that voted for Obama in 2012 cast over 61% of the votes in the whole state, despite being only 10 of 36 counties. In fact, the 7 most populous counties in the state cast over 70% of all of the votes in the state. That population concentration has grown over the years, and it should scare Republicans. Obama may have won only 4 of those 7 most populous counties in 2012, but he won 6 of the 7 in 2008. None of them have shown a long-term Republican trend, but many are becoming more Democratic.
They are also becoming a larger share of the vote. The counties Obama won in 2012 cast only 59.7% of the statewide vote in 1996, but 61.3% in 2012. The 7 largest counties only cast 68.4% of the vote in 1996, but 70.6% in 2012.
Lets look at the different regions across Oregon.
The region as I'm considering it is comprised of Clatsop, Coos, Curry, Lincoln, and Tillamook counties. Parts are in Douglas and Lane counties, but only small parts. Those counties are dominated by inland areas. Each of those counties, including Lane and Douglas, showed some overall loss in their shares of the statewide vote from 1996 to 2012. Below is each county's share as a percentage of the vote in general elections. I have looked at every general election and primary from 1996 and 1998 to 2012, but will just summarize my findings.
During this period the region's share of the vote in statewide Democratic presidential primaries has declined as well, from about 7% in 2000 to around 6% in 2012. The share in Republican primaries declined from 6.5% until 2012, when it actually increased to 6.6%. In midterm elections the Coast makes a little more of the vote in primaries possibly because the region is older and whiter than many inland regions, and those demographics commonly lead to more consistent turnout.
Coos County in particular over the period I was looking at was obviously a larger share of the vote in primaries, but also it was obvious that it was becoming less of a force in Democratic primaries, and more of one in Republican primaries. Starting out with more than 2% of the statewide Democratic primary vote, that dropped below 2%, and the opposite happened in Republican primaries.
Southern Oregon as I'm assessing it is Douglas, Jackson, and Josephine counties. Aside from Obama narrowly winning Jackson County in 2008, outside of Ashland and some parts of southern Josephine and Jackson counties this region is strongly Republican. Despite substantial population growth in Jackson County during the past decade, this region's overall share of the vote declined between 1996 and 2012.
What left me thinking about the region was that I have tended to think about Douglas County as trending Republican, Jackson slightly Democratic, and Josephine being pretty stable and deeply Republican, but after looking at Clinton's performance versus Obama's, I've had to rethink that. In 1996 this region voted about 11 points more Republican than the nation as a whole, whereas in 2012 it voted a bit over 9 points more Republican than the nation. When one of the biggest Republican leaning regions in the state is getting less Republican, they should be worried.
The region's importance in Democratic primaries has slightly but steadily declined as many of the other regions have outpaced them. In 2000 it was about 9.8% of the Democratic primary vote, and in 2012 it was about 8.6% of the statewide vote. In Republican primaries it was more of a force, and despite fluctuating over time was about the same in 2000 and 2012, at about 14.5% of the statewide vote.
I'm aggregating what are really several different sub-regions into a larger Eastern Oregon region: basically everything east of the Cascade mountain range, from Hood River down to Klamath Falls and everything east. This'll become problematic when looking at overall trends, but I'll clarify where it needs it.
Hood River County, home of the region's congressman Greg Walden, was one of Obama best counties in the whole state in both 2008 and 2012, and in general is the only county in the region to lean Democratic. Neighboring Wasco County can be swingy, as Obama won it in 2008 but lost it in 2012 by only about 18 votes. The rest of the Columbia River area is ancestrally Democratic, and I think Gilliam County voted for Ron Wyden in 2010. Deschutes County in Central Oregon is not terribly Republican, and helpfully it is the largest population center in the region. Bend, the largest city in the region, is also there. The rest of the region is extremely Republican, and sparsely populated. Most don't have 1% of the statewide vote; a few don't even have a tenth of a percent of the statewide vote.
Looking at primary elections as the region has trended Republican overall it has become more important in Republican primaries and less so in Democratic ones. From 2000 to 2012 it declined from 10.75% of the vote in Democratic primaries to only about 8.5% of the vote. In the same period it increased from about 15.7% of the vote to 20.7% in Republican primaries. Surprisingly, while in midterm Democratic primaries this region had higher turnout overall than in presidential years, in Republican primaries it was the opposite. This region has become much more important to Republican candidates running statewide, as it has become more Republican and the rest of the state has become less.
The Upper Willamette Valley
At the southern end of the Willamette Valley are Lane, Benton, and Linn counties, with the Corvallis-Albany and Eugene-Springfield areas, this region also has two of Oregon's three biggest universities: the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. Lane and Benton counties are two of the most Democratic in the state, with Lane and Eugene in particular being a large Democratic stronghold, but Benton with Corvallis has become increasingly progressive in recent years: only it and Multnomah counties voted against the ban on gay marriage in 2004, in all of the state. Lane voted for it by less than 100 votes. Linn, though, with Albany, leans Republican.
In primaries the region is worth a bit more in the Democratic primaries, but not by much. Benton County rose during the period I looked at from about 2.4% to 3% of the statewide vote in Democratic primaries, while Linn dropped from about 3% to below 2%. Linn remained pretty stable at somewhere around 11.5%, but both Lane and Benton turned out a bit more in presidential year primaries than midterm, while Linn began to perform better in midterms as the period went on.
In Republican primaries the region has remained pretty stable, but counts a bit less. Lane County is worth 8-9%, Linn has increased a little from under 3% to above it, and Benton is worth around 2%. Benton and Linn counties have better turnout in midterm primaries and Lane in presidential primaries.
While the region's importance has slightly declined, it is still the second largest in votes in the state. And while it has declined slightly, it has gotten more Democratic. In 1996 the region was about 2 points more Democratic than the nation as a whole. In 2012 it was 6.7 points more Democratic than the state as a whole.
The Mid Willamette Valley
Heading north up the valley, before we get to the Portland area we go through Salem and the Mid Willamette region, including Marion, Polk, and Yamhill counties. The region as a whole and individually each county leans Republican by a few points, but seems to be trending Democratic. In 2006 and 2008 Kulongoski and Obama won Marion County, the largest here, while in 2006 Kulongoski lost Polk by a mere 23 votes and in 2008 Obama came within a couple points in both Polk and Yamhill. In 2010 and 2012, though, Republicans carried the day here.
In Democratic primaries the decline has been evident as well, as the region has gone from greater than 10% of the vote to less than 9%, and it has been entirely from Marion County. Polk and Yamhill have seen increases while Marion County's share has declined from 6.7% to a 5.1% of the statewide vote in Democratic primaries.
In Republican primaries all of the counties have been exhibiting the same kind of behavior, and the overall result has been a decline from 13.2% to 12.4% of the statewide vote from 2000-2012.
The region has slightly improved for Democrats. While in 1996 it voted nearly 4.5 points more Republican than the nation as a whole, in 2012 it was only about 4 points more Republican. In that time many of the cities have trended Democratic.
The Portland Metropolitan Area
We've gone through all but one region and still have more than 40% of the statewide vote left! The Portland metro area doesn't quite dominate the rest of the state in elections, but it commands a clear and large plurality of the votes. The four remaining counties I'm including are Clackamas, Columbia, Multnomah, and Washington.
In the primaries the region is also of prime importance. In the Democratic primary in 2000 the region provided over 45% of the votes, but by 2012 it was over half. In fact, probably driven by a heated mayoral primary in Portland, Multnomah County alone provided a staggering 30% of the vote in the 2012 Democratic primary. Meanwhile in the period I was looking at Washington County came from behind to now match Lane County in its share of the vote in Democratic primaries in midterm elections, while Lane still slightly had more in 2012.
In Republican primaries the region is still the largest, but its not determinative, and actually declining in importance. In 2000 it provided over 35% of the vote in the Republican primary, but by 2012 barely over 31%.
Those numbers would lead one to believe the region has become more Democratic, and one would be right. In 1996 the Portland metro area voted about 6 points more Democratic than the nation as a whole, but in 2012 that had increased to nearly 14 points.
A map of the state adjusted for its share of the population or vote does not look too familiar. Oregon has a lot of sparsely populated territory, which is part of what makes the state so wonderful. Most of the population lives in Western Oregon; in fact, most lives in just the Willamette Valley. The Willamette Valley as a whole voted over 61.5% for Barack Obama in 2012, and comprised over 71% of the statewide vote, and it seems to be still getting more Democratic while also increasing its share of the vote.
Things look poor for Republicans. Of the regions in the state only Eastern Oregon is both growing and getting more Republican. The Coast is slowly trending Republican, but also is shrinking and already is the smallest region. The only other two Republican leaning regions are the Mid Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon, both of which appear to be trending Democratic, and also are not increasing their share of the vote.
The Republican Party in Oregon is on a to irrelevancy as it depends more and more on regions of the state that are not determinative in elections, and has less and less of a presence in the western half of the state where the vast majority of Oregonians live and vote. Even the big Republican counties, Deschutes, Jackson, and Marion are not doing enough for them. In 1996 together they voted about 6 points more Republican than the nation as a whole, but in 2012 only about 4 points more Republican. Life will not get any easier for them until things fundamentally change.